Early last week, while in Toronto, I happened into a ticket to one of the Munk Debates . This series, sponsored by Canadian businessman Peter Munk and organized by a local Toronto thinker, Rudyard Griffiths, aims to explore the looming challenges of our day with good old fashioned debates. They’ve got a high reputation, so I perked up when I heard that the debate scheduled for last Tuesday was going to center on climate change.
Specifically, the resolution to be debated was the following:
> Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s defining crisis and deserves a commensurate response.
But what really caught my attention was the panel of debaters. On the Yes side were George Monbiot, an environmental activist and journalist who writes for the Guardian in the UK, and Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party in Canada. On the No side were Bjorn Lomborg, thorn in the side of climate change activists everywhere and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist among other titles, and Sir Nigel Lawson, who served in the UK government as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, but basically makes his living these days as a climate change denier. Quite a match up, no?
I’ll spare you the blow by blow and cut to the chase: the No team won. God, it was depressing to watch. On the way in the approximately 1,100 attendees had voted for or against the resolution, with 61% voting Yes and 39% voting No. And on the way out, only 53% voted Yes, with 47% voting No. I suppose it could have been worse, but it was painful all the same, and made me understand much better the recent polls showing that fewer Americans (and presumably Canadians) believe that climate change is an imminent threat, or that it’s caused by human activity.
Lord Lawson came across as a crank, though an educated one. I don’t imagine he changed many minds. And Elizabeth May was a train wreck, despite a strong start, getting so flustered at one point that she actually had her microphone turned off by the organizers to prevent her yelling over her opponents’ turn to speak. That’s hardly the kind of steady confidence we’d all like to see in our environmental leaders.
So what it came down to was this: Bjorn Lomborg told the audience that the developed world can do more good by investing in foreign aid now rather than investing in efforts to combat climate change that won’t bear fruit for decades, as if that were in fact the choice we face. And George Monbiot resorted to telling tales of drought and desperation in sub-Saharan Africa, repeatedly making the point that it’s those who have done the least to cause global warming who are doomed to suffer the most from it.
Lomborg’s stance is dishonest on the face of it, because the developed world can and should do more than it does in terms of direct foreign aid or help for developing nations, regardless of whether it takes action versus climate change or not. It’s a false choice he presents, but boy does he present it well, judging by the knowing chuckles that rippled through the audience as he made his case.
I can see its appeal, though. There is something seductive in hearing that as a society our spending to battle climate change would have to come directly from the mouths of starving babes in Africa. I mean, what heart of stone would support that? The premise falls apart upon even the lightest reflection (clearly, we have a moral responsibility to do both), but it’s scarily plausible in the moment. And Lomborg, in his jeans and T-shirt and easy manner, is a scarily plausible messenger.
But it was Monbiot’s argument that finally clinched the loss for his side, I’m afraid. Not that I think he did a bad job arguing his case. It’s worse than that. You see, he made a carefully crafted plea to save those in the developing world from climate change, as a moral imperative. But the more he hammered home how the developing world would suffer so much more than the developed world, the easier it became for the audience to think that perhaps the developed world wouldn’t suffer such terrible consequences from climate change after all. Maybe it would be like all those other horrible things that happen in Africa, that don’t much affect North America, or North Americans.
And that’s pretty much what tore it, from my point of view. Because if you can convince people in the developed world that climate change is only really going to affect the part of humanity that lives in Africa, or Bangladesh, or even the Maldives for that matter, and not the part that lives in London or Chicago, well it’s going to seem a lot less like the defining challenge of humanity for an audience in Toronto, isn’t it? And the debate goes to the No side.
Watch for this argument from Republicans against the climate change bill this spring. It’s pernicious, but as I saw with my own eyes and ears at last week’s debate, it’s effective.